I'm not a big fan of Dana Rohrabacher, the grandstanding Republican congressman from California. But last week at a congressional hearing on U.S.-Japan relations, he ably cut through the Pentagon's doublespeak.
The hearing's topic was the current conflict between Washington and Tokyo over the military bases on the Japanese island of Okinawa. The United States wants to close the aging Futenma air base, send half the Marines over to Guam, and build a replacement facility in a less populated part of the island. Most Okinawans don't want a new base or an old base expanded to accommodate the remaining Marines from Futenma. The Japanese government hasn't decided whether to listen to Washington or to its own constituents.
Rohrabacher had a simple question for the Pentagon official at the hearing. "How many U.S. military personnel do we have in Japan?" he asked. Looking very uncomfortable, the official said that he would have to get back to the congressman with those figures.
Excuse me? The congressman wasn't asking about the location of Osama bin Laden or the Pentagon's covert plan for Helmand province. The number of U.S. troops in Japan - approximately 47,000 - is no state secret. In response, Rohrabacher quite sensibly pointed out that it's impossible to make a case for a new base unless we have a clear sense of our capabilities and our needs.
Rohrabacher, of course, was attempting to ride his hobby horse - the China menace - to the finish line. He tried to goad the Pentagon official into stating that China was a threat, but to no avail. The United States is happy that Japan is strengthening its relations with countries in the region, the official said, and China poses certain "challenges" but isn't a "threat."
Well, all of that is useful to know. The official's statement is perfectly consistent with the latest Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), in which the Pentagon pointedly failed to identify China as the only threat on the horizon that could dethrone the current king of the hill (a major feature of the previous QDR).
But if China's no threat and the Cold War has been over for a couple decades, chairman of the Asia-Pacific subcommittee Eni Faleomavaega (D-American Samoa) asked, why does the United States need so many troops stationed in Japan? Faleomavaega also wanted to know why the United States has to maintain over 700 bases around the world and tops the list of global arms exporters.
The Pentagon official couldn't satisfy either Rohrabacher's anti-China tirade or Faleomavaega's probing questions about the U.S. empire of bases. And that's precisely the problem with the Obama administration's Pacific policy. We are trying to maintain the exact same force posture as previous administrations but at the same time emphasizing our new commitment to multilateralism and our new status as a "global partner." It's like Arnold Schwarzenegger going from Terminator to Kindergarten Cop in the space of a year: Audiences above the age of seven are just not convinced.
Most recently, the Pentagon quietly announced that it will not build anything on Okinawa without the approval of the host community. That might make base relocation on the island a little difficult. After all, the prefectural government has come out against any new bases (or base expansions). So have the mayors of the affected communities. And according to a June 2009 opinion poll, 68 percent of Okinawans oppose relocating the Futenma base within the prefecture.
And it's not as if the people of Guam - where 8,000 of the U.S. Marines from Futenma are slated to relocate - are overjoyed at the expansion of their own base. "They are angry about a major military buildup here, which the government of Guam and many residents say is being grossly underfunded," writes Blaine Harden in The Washington Post. "They fear that the construction of a new Marine Corps base will overwhelm the island's already inadequate water and sewage systems, as well as its port, power grid, hospital, highways and social services."
If the Obama administration is truly committed to gaining the approval of host communities, it might soon find itself without any hosts at all. Here's the bottom line: It's not easy to run an empire with velvet gloves. A proper imperialist would have given the thumbs up to Rohrabacher and squelched Faleomavaega's impertinence. A good old-fashioned hawk would never talk about gaining the consent of a host community. At the same time, velvet imperialists who revel in touchy-feely values of mutuality and good governance are no good at dismantling empires. They're afraid of appearing weak. They speak of the need to "maintain stability" in an anarchic world. And they love to talk about how military bases are necessary for responding to humanitarian disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes.
In other words, don't expect the Obama administration to pull a Gorbachev and begin to unravel the U.S. empire of bases. Look instead for an insider who knows the system, as Gorbachev did, to pull the plug. If some future administration chooses Andrew Bacevich as secretary of defense - the Boston University professor served in Vietnam and rose to the rank of colonel - we might actually see Pentagon reform we can believe in.
In the meantime, where should the Marines of Futenma relocate? I vote for Washington, DC. Marines deployed outside the U.S. Capitol could promote democracy by protecting lawmakers who support health care legislation from the wrath of tea party crazies. And if the Pentagon's so keen on rebuilding cities, parts of the District certainly qualify. If the prospect of having U.S. Marines involved in promoting democracy, maintaining stability, and responding to humanitarian crises at home makes you squeamish, you can begin to understand how the Okinawans might feel.
For more information on our campaign to reduce the U.S. military footprint on Okinawa, visit our new website. And consider contributing a few dollars to help us spread the word with ads in major media.
© 2010 Foreign Policy in Focus